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Into the heart of Chaos

Just to make sure you don’t think I’m only spending my time reading novels and being idle, I’ve been doing some on-the-fly research for my current story – that I hope to have finished, one way or the other, by the weekend.
And I’ve spent the last two days immersed in absolute Chaos.
And if this did nothing for my headache, it will certainly do a lot of good to my story.

So, what I’ve been researching?
The Russian Civil War.
And to give you an idea of how chaotic the thing is – we know there was a civil war in Russia after the Great War, but depending on the sources it ended in 1920, in 1923 or in 1926. It probably started in 1919. Or maybe in 1917.
Or something.

In a nutshell, the thing looks pretty straightforward – the “Red” Bolsheviks faced the “White” anti-Revolutionary forces. The Reds held the western part of the country, and most of the industrial centres, the Whites had control of the vast stretches of Siberia.
Only this is such a simplified scheme, it is basically meaningless.

Over a period of three years (using a conservative time-frame), independent states appeared and disappeared overnight, while revolts erupted all over the place, and everybody fought against everybody else.
On the revolutionary front, the Reds had to deal with the Blacks (essentially Anarchists) and the Greens (these being peasant-based splinter groups rebelling against the agricultural policies of the Bolsheviks); in the opposed field, the former Czarist generals of the White faction were supposedly allied with the Cossack – but the Cossack war lords were basically pushing their own agenda. And the two fields were at each other’s throat.

Oh, and of course there were the Central Powers butting in – British and French, the Japanese eyeing Manchuria, but also – and here we get to my story proper – a whole army of Czech insurgents and a unit of “Italian infantry” that was actually an illegal private army holding a whole city under control (because Italians do it better).

So basically, from the point of view of the little people, it was very hard to understand what was actually going on.
I can say I feel for them – the whole thing is crazy.
And this is something I will try to capture in my story – the sense of disorientation, and of being really at the mercy of forces whose plans are way over your head.

To increase the Chaos, I am working on a very tight time-window – my story taking place in the winter of 1918-1919, so at the very start of the Civil War, along the Trans-Siberian.

The whole set-up is so loose, the allegiances so debatable and the landscape so wide and empty, in the end I am writing a sort of Western – and indeed there is a whole genre of Russian cinema, the Ostern, that recycles Western plots for Russians vs Savage Cossacks action, often replacing the Blue and the Grey withe the Reds and the Whites.

I’ve been reading – I checked a few Osprey volumes, especially Bullock’s Russian Civil War, 1918-1922, that provides a good general overview of the situation, plus the Men-at-Arms volumes for the Reds and the Whites; I’ve browsed Dmitrii Fedotoff-White’s 1939 Survival Through War And Revolution In Russia – Fedotoff-White’s memoir of the civil war, that’s being quite useful to get color details. I’ve dug out the Transiberian Handbook, that I had used to plan my never-taken trip on the Russian railways, and that provides maps and local detail. And finally I will have to check out Hopkirk’s Setting the East Ablaze for more Cossack and Central-Asian material.

Which is quite interesting, because in the end I am writing an 8000-words story that should take about three or four days to write. Is it worth the headaches, the confusion and the pile of books on my bed falling on the floor as I take notes on post-its?
And because I love history and doing research, I will of course say yes.
But I am also quite convinced that losing myself in research is an excellent way to avoid writing.
It’s a game of balance, as usual.

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